A Potential Viking Fort in Shetland: The extraordinary Kame of Isbister

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Abstract

This paper will describe ongoing research carried out between 2014 and 2019, which seeks to understand one of the most inaccessible archaeological sites in the UK, the spectacular Kame of Isbister in the Shetland Islands. The Kame is a 38m high rocky headland of mica slate, which is, through coastal erosion, becoming a sea-stack. It is situated in North Roe, in the parish of Northmavine, some 40 miles, or 1 hour’s drive, north of Lerwick (See Figure 1). The grid reference is 60° 36′ 18″ N, 1° 18′ 19″ W. The nearest modern settlement is a 1km walk over a hill used for rough grazing. On its western side the Kame is connected to the Shetland mainland by a knife-edge ridge, which is now impassable. On two sides it has steep slopes with cliffs, with a deep sea-cave penetrating it on the northern side. On the eastern side there is an area of bare rock which faces Yell Sound. Indeed, the whole headland projects into the Sound and from the sea it forms a prominent feature. The Kame is covered with grass, which slopes steeply from the summit to the rocks on the eastern side, and the total area enclosed is some 95 x 55m. What makes the Kame so interesting from the archaeological perspective is the presence of a nucleated settlement, comprising a large, and as yet undefined, number of rectangular stone and turf structures, of which some 15 are situated on the summit, with 3 on the south eastern edge, and 1, perhaps 2, at the bottom of the slope near to an earth embankment, which transects the headland. The larger of the structures on the summit are roughly 7 x 3m internally, while the clearly identifiable building at the bottom of the slope appears to be 8 x 4m internally. Although difficult to see from the landward side, from the seaward side these structures project a considerable sense of presence, and despite being about 0.5m in height, they can easily be seen by vessels sailing up Yell Sound. Indeed, even today they can be clearly identified from the coast of Yell, 5.5km away on the other side of the Sound. The seaward perspective ought to be prioritised when considering the Kame’s use. It has been speculated that the site might have been a Pictish eremitical monastery, or a refuge from Viking raiders. The one extant C14 date produced from the site furnished a Viking Age date of 1139 ± 44 BP, with a 95.4% probability of 770AD – 990AD. However, this date combined with the shape of the structures, its similarity to the Brough of Deerness on Orkney, and its visibility from the sea, are highly suggestive of a Viking settlement, perhaps a Viking fort or stronghold.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationViking Encounters Proceedings of the Eighteenth Viking Congress
EditorsAnne Pedersen, Soren Sindbaek
Place of PublicationAarhus
PublisherAarhus Universitetsforlag
Pages345-354
Number of pages11
ISBN (Print)9788771842654
Publication statusPublished - 25 Sep 2020

Keywords

  • Viking
  • Shetland

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